INDIO, Calif. -- Going to the Stagecoach Festival in the California desert can sometimes feel like attending the world's biggest TV party since most of the 55,000 fans end up plopping their lawn chairs football fields away from the main stage and watching the headliners on giant monitors.
This year, though, a lot of what transpired fest was about a TV show. If you don't watch The Voice, you might have felt a little bit out of the loop on the second night of the three-day fest, as Saturday's (April 28) co-headliners Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert both paid their own kind of homage to the show that has made one of them "a big TV star," as his bride proudly put it.
Apparently, there haven't been any hard feelings since Shelton reluctantly nixed 17-year-old RaeLynn from the show just a couple of weeks ago. Lambert brought her out to sing a duet, calling her "my little favorite." Plenty of Stagecoachers didn't recognize the tune Lambert and RaeLynn sang, perhaps figuring it was a deep album cut of Lambert's since it sported lyrics about finding a lover in bed with another and shooting an adulterer dead. But this particular gunpowder-and-lead anthem was actually Maroon 5's "Wake Up Call," which RaeLynn memorably performed on The Voice in one of her last weeks on the show.
Shelton, for his part, used his return to SoCal as a jumping-off point to tell told a long, possibly apocryphal story about his first meeting in L.A. with his fellow Voice judges. He claimed he'd gone out for a network meeting without any knowledge of which other celebs might be in the running for judgeships.
"Being in country music, I was the only one on time," he quipped. By his account, Adam Levine showed up for the meeting 20 minutes in. Twenty minutes after that, "through the door came Christina Aguilera's boobs, and then two minutes later came the rest of Christina Aguilera." Finally, he said, about another 20 minutes after that entered Cee Lo Green -- which led to Shelton singing about two-thirds of "Forget You" with his band before deciding he'd better get back to country.
When Lambert left the stage at the apparent end of her concluding set, some wondered if the two no-longer-newlyweds had really booked back-to-back sets at Stagecoach without any intention of doing a duet. Not to worry. For the encore, her husband -- whom she re-introduced by saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, from NBC's The Voice, Mr. Blake Shelton!" -- came back out to join voices with her on his own smash, "Home," accompanied only by his guitar. Regardless of whether they deliberately wanted to do it acoustically or just didn't have time to teach it to her band, the song came off as far more moving in this stripped-down arrangement than it ever did on record ... even when Lambert added the inevitable semi-randy touch by singing, "We'll be all right, 'cause I'm going on his tour bus tonight."
Then things got really communal as Lambert invited everyone who'd performed on the main stage Saturday -- including Luke Bryan, Justin Moore, Sunny Sweeney and her Pistol Annies compatriots -- to trade lines on a ramshackle version of Roger Miller's "King of the Road." Shelton, ever the jester, altered the lyric to describe himself as a "king of the load."
It was a nice moment of community, rare for the Stagecoach Festival, where a lot of the stars typically grab their unsold T-shirts from the merch booth and get on the bus to head to the next gig before the next act even hits the stage. But it still wasn't as inclusive as it might have been since no one from the side stages was invited to join the closing hootenanny.
That reinforced the idea that Stagecoach is a tale of two festivals. About 95 percent of the attendees put their lawn chairs down on the main stage's vast, nearly Woodstockian field and never visit the side stages, where the music tends to be a bit left-of-center and the crowds, well, intimate. Still, at least four side-stage acts did draw decent-sized crowds this year -- most notably Steve Martin, but also Chris Isaak, Ralph Stanley and the newly reunited Mavericks.
Martin's performance with the Steep Canyon Rangers actually managed to draw thousands away from the mainstream action into an immense tent filled with suddenly bluegrass-loving whoopers and hollerers. Delivering droll one-liners between often comedic tunes, Martin showed why he owns the International Bluegrass Music Association's entertainer mantle for as long as he cares to stay on the road, and (hint to festival organizers for 2013 or 2014) he'd have gone over swimmingly on the main stage.
"It has been a longtime dream of mine to play bluegrass at the Stagecoach Music Festival," Martin told the crowd upon reaching the stage. "Today, I feel I am one step closer to that dream."
Martin might have been rethinking the "dream," though, as his set was delayed by sound and feedback problems that never were resolved even after he took the stage. Eventually the flummoxed sound people solved the worst of the problems by turning down the music, which unfortunately rendered the star's stream of between-song gags inaudible to anyone in the back half of the tent. Martin seemed to keep a good attitude about the snafus, cautioning the audience at one enthusiastic point, "Please -- clapping and enjoyment cause feedback."
Martin's set followed Stanley's on the bluegrass stage. Reportedly, Martin was dismayed when he found out the order of the bill and insisted on doing a couple of numbers right before Stanley came out so that he could officially be qualified as opening for the legendary bluegrass figure.
During his set, Stanley noted someone backstage had asked him to do a gospel number, but he made it clear that would have happened anyway. "I'm ... ." He meant to say how old he was, but seemed to have honestly forgotten. "How old am I?" he asked the band. "I'm 85, and I've been in the business 66 years, and I've never been onstage that we didn't do some gospel. Would 'Rank Strangers' be OK?"
It was, and no one in the crowd seemed to take the title of the Stanley Brothers classic as a commentary on the alcohol-fueled Stagecoach demographic. Stanley sounded in good form -- when he sang, which was not quite as often as some fans hoped. For the last three numbers of the set, he stood impassively at center stage, not singing, taking audience requests and curiously favoring instrumentals that didn't involve him as anything other than an onlooker to his band. He may have been tired by then, but even standing up for an entire set is a test of stamina when you're wearing a suit, you're 85, and it's 98 degrees.
Isaak alluded to the ridiculousness of wearing an elaborate Nudie-style suit in this kind of weather, which was seven degrees above average, even for the desert.
"I'm wearing a wool suit," he told his crowd, "but I want to get it on anyway. I want to see if I can pass out up here!"
Things got hotter for Isaak when he performed a medley of songs from his recent Sun Records tribute album. Your reporter left to catch Luke Bryan on the main stage midway through the medley, but we're told Isaak actually set his piano on fire while performing Jerry Lee Lewis' "Great Balls of Fire," as Lewis himself once legendarily did -- and that the smoke that wafted out into the tent made it clear to observers this wasn't some kind of optical trick.
One of the Sun artists Isaak paid tribute to was Roy Orbison, so it was a natural transition into the next act to appear on his stage, by the Mavericks, whose singer Raul Malo has been noted for his Orbison-like range and vocal prowess. The Mavericks have done Nashville club gigs since getting back together and signing with Big Machine Records, but this was their first formal appearance anywhere else.
Kicking things off with, appropriately enough, "Back in Your Arms Again," they sounded legitimately better than ever, not to mention pleased to be getting another shot.
"I never thought I'd hear these words again, but this is the first single off our new record," said Malo, introducing the about-to-be-released "Born to Be Blue."
For anyone who did travel between the main stage and side stages, there were amusing incongruities and contrasts. Playing as part of a jazz-oriented trio, legendary songwriters J.D. Souther was covering the jazzy "Ain't Misbehavin'" and Don Gibson's 1958 country No. 1 hit "Oh Lonesome Me" right about the same time Luke Bryan was covering Metallica's "Enter Sandman."
Bryan did the Metallica tune in a medley with "All My Friends Say," but that was nothing compared to his epic, set-closing version of "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)." After a long round of encouraging audience participation, he turned around and did some of his own mild booty-shaking for the audience and cameras, saying he was doing it "like Beyoncé" and "like Rihanna."
He then invited a male audience member onto the stage to shake it, and he was about to invite a woman up -- which would have seemed the inevitable focal point -- when he thought better of it and moved on, perhaps having been given a signal that his time was up.
The festival kicked off Friday (April 27) with a lineup that included the Eli Young Band, Alabama and headliner Jason Aldean. The event wraps up Sunday with performances by Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow, Martina McBride, The Band Perry, the Del McCoury Band, Kenny Rogers and Country Music Hall of Fame member Roy Clark, among others.